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The opening shots of Cameraperson, a riveting memoir/documentary by cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, juxtaposes serene, natural beauty with a jarring human touch. For example, a mesmerizing scene of sheepherding in rural Croatia is interrupted by a hand reaching in front of the camera to remove an obstructing blade of grass. A gorgeous skyscape with a bolt of lightning captured in its full glory, humanized by a sneeze from behind the camera. This is Cameraperson, a thrillingly original work of art that brings cinema’s unsung hero—the director of photography—into sharp focus.
Johnson has lifted snippets of unused footage from her documentaries—including Oscar-winners Farenheit 9/11 and Citizenfour—and re-arranged them to present a loose snapshot of her life and work. Over the course of her 20-year career (and this 100-minute film), she trots around the globe, documenting tribal rituals in Uganda and the daily lives of poor, rural Bosnians recovering from the traumas of war. She shows us the first football game at Penn State after the child abuse scandal and the first images of a secret Al Qaeda prison. She speaks with a teenager about her recent abortion in Alabama and a boxer in Brooklyn preparing for, and eventually losing, a big fight.
The film’s cascading narratives of suffering and perseverance even reaches Johnson’s home, where a picture of Johnson’s personal isolation emerges: young twin children that she doesn’t get to see as much as she would like, a father who raised her with a faith that she may no longer hold, and, in the film’s most poignant subplot, a mother suffering from late-stage Alzheimer’s. Johnson films her family with the same curiosity and empathy that imbues all her work, and in doing so, creates a rich, universal tapestry of the human experience. Early scenes with her mother paint the two as disconnected, their relationship ravaged by her illness. But after leading the viewer through other touching maternal moments elsewhere, Johnson circles back to her own story, showing how much her work has strengthened the mother-daughter bond.
It’s hard to imagine this film being made during any other era than this one. We crave personal narratives, and it’s telling that the footage that comprises Cameraperson is likely to be far more widely seen than the films for which they were shot. Outside of the Oscar-winners mentioned above, few of Johnson’s films saw commercial success. People would not line up to see a documentary about Muslim women who were repeatedly raped during the Bosnian War. But filter it through the lens of a white lady with a poignant family story to tell, and all of a sudden, it’s a potential Oscar winner.
None of this should be considered a criticism of the film itself, which is a triumph of both form and function. While each vignette is compelling or tense in its own right, the collage adds up to a vision of Johnson’s artistic work that serves as an elegant and powerful metaphor. The film captures her toiling in an unforgiving world, seeking a narrative that makes sense of the chaos, and balancing the light and dark to create a lasting image. Turns out the person behind the camera is just like the rest of us.
Cameraperson opens Friday at E Street Cinema.